How To Protect Container Plants In Winter

By Laura Miller | December 1, 2022
Image by Bob Hilscher
by Laura Miller
December 1, 2022

Each fall, a small town in Northern Ohio hosts a woolly bear festival to honor these rust and black colored caterpillars of the Isabella Tiger moth. Legend says the amount of black found on each end of the caterpillar is an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar Winter Prediction

Although science has de-mythed the folklore, it seems to me that these simple bugs can predict long term winter weather patterns as well as any college-educated meteorologist. After all, if humans could predict the future, life would be much simpler.

Case in point, if I knew the exact date of the last spring frost, I would never need to rush outside at dusk to throw protective coverings over newly transplanted seedlings. I would simply wait for frost-free weather to plant my frost-tender veggie plants.

Nonetheless, I always take notice of woolly bear caterpillars in the fall. If their prediction matches that of weather forecasters, I know to be wary. Winters in Ohio can sometimes bring a lot of snow and subzero temperatures.

How to Protect Container Plants in Winter

The vast majority of perennials I plant in the yard are winter hardy in my growing zone. Thus, the plants which receive the most damage from a severely cold winter are my container fig trees. Their size precludes me from bringing them inside the house for the winter. Besides, these deciduous fruit-bearers require 100 chill hours in order to properly break dormancy and produce figs.

For me, this means storing my container figs in my enclosed, but unheated front porch. Many gardeners find an attached garage also works well for winter storage of non-hardy species of container plants.

Cold Tolerance of Brown Turkey Fig Tree

If you’re wondering about fig tree cold-tolerance minimum temperatures, it’s around 15 degrees F. (- 9.4 C.). Most winters, the temperature inside my front porch stays a toasty 35 to 40 degrees F. (1.7-4.4 C.).

I know this because I now use a wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer. These inexpensive gadgets consist of a remote sensor which I place in the front porch. The base station sits well within my view on the fireplace mantle.

The read out is large enough that I don’t need my glasses to see it. (A plus for us older gardeners.) No matter if I’m watching the forecast on the nightly news or just happen to be walking past the fireplace, a quick glance is all that is needed for me to know my container figs are safe from cold damage.

Preventing Cold Damage in Fig Trees

Prior to purchasing this type of thermometer, my container figs would occasionally suffer bud or twig dieback when the outside ambient temperature dropped into the single digits. This would put the temperature in the front porch into the sub-freezing zone.

The amount of damage depended upon how cold the front porch got and how long the cold lasted. Now, whenever the thermometer readout indicates the temperature inside the front porch is dropping toward the freezing point, I know to crack open the front porch door which leads into the house.

This lets enough warm air trickle into the enclosed porch to maintain the temperature above the freezing point. Luckily, most winters we only receive a night or two of severely cold weather and the hit on my heating bill is very minimal.

Yet, I can remember one winter which was absolutely brutal. This was before I used the indoor/outdoor thermometer to warn me. Subsequently, my container figs took a hit. And thinking back to the previous fall, neither humans nor woolly bears had seen that cold snap coming.

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